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Sara Azaryahu

1873 – 1962

by Margalit Shilo

A teacher and women’s activist, Azaryahu was born in Dinaburg (Dvinsk, Daugavpils), Latvia, into a traditional-modern family. Her father, Shmaryahu, the son of Aaron Shaul Zelig Meirov, rented a flour mill. Her mother, Bluma (née Eisenstein), was a homemaker. The couple had one other daughter. As a young girl Azaryahu studied Hebrew and Jewish subjects with a private tutor and later attended the gymnasium. As an adult, she was at first attracted to the Bund but soon moved to the circles of the Hibbat Zion movement. In 1892 she established a young women’s group, Bnot Zion (Daughters of Zion), in Dinaburg. When Herzl founded the Zionist Movement she was impressed by what she perceived as his progressive attitude towards women. In her memoir she writes that from her youth she had been concerned with two major problems: the problem of the inferior status of the Jewish people and that of the inferior status of women. She wondered whether the two problems might be solved in Palestine. Her first short visit in 1897 to Ottoman Palestine was with her sister. Azaryahu was surprised to encounter the new life flourishing in the Jewish colonies.

In 1901 Azaryahu married Yosef Ozerkowsky (later Azaryahu, 1872–1945) and together they went to Bern, Switzerland to study education. They also took part in the fifth Zionist congress in Basle on December 26–30, 1901. Financial problems compelled the Azaryahus to interrupt their studies and return to Russia. They both taught at a Hebrew school for girls in Golatha, near Odessa. Sara Azaryahu remembered her years of work at the school as one of the most cherished periods of her lifetime.

An invitation to her husband to come and teach in Rehovot in 1905 was their first step towards aliyah. Since only Yosef had a work offer he went alone while Sara Azaryahu stayed in Golata for another year with their little son Ya’akov. It was not the last time that the independent Sara chose to retain her job and join her husband when circumstances permitted.

In the summer of 1906 both Yosef and Sara moved to Jaffa in order to work at the girls’ school. Sara taught mathematics and geography, which were considered “male” subjects. The school in Jaffa had a unique character. Its yard was called the “autonomy” and it served as the cultural center of the town’s Jewish intelligentsia. The teachers, who were so absorbed in the school’s problems that they never ceased discussing them even in their private gatherings, conceived of their work as a sacred mission. The school’s aim was to create the new Hebrew society. One of its manifestations was that male and female teachers earned equal salaries. In 1909 Sara and Yosef Azaryahu were among the founders of the new Hebrew city of Tel Aviv.

The Azaryahus stayed in Haifa during the very difficult period of World War I, after which they moved to Jerusalem in 1919. The Balfour Declaration (1917) and the British conquest of the land opened new horizons for them as they did for the entire Jewish population. In addition to teaching at the Reali School in Haifa and later heading a school for girls in Jerusalem, Sara became very active in the new women’s organization, the Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel, which was established in Jerusalem in 1919 and had branches throughout the country. The Union, whose slogan was “Equal legal rights for men and women,” had as its immediate aim that women should be able to take part in the elections of the new Asefat ha-Nivharim (the Elected Assembly), the Jewish parliament of Palestine. The fight for women’s suffrage in the Yishuv lasted nearly eight years, from 1918 to 1926. Ultimately the women won—but the ultra-Orthodox community did not join the Asefat ha-Nivharim. Azaryahu described the women’s fight for equal rights at length in her two books: My Life Story and The Fight of Women for Equal Rights. Azaryahu, who played a major part in the women’s union and was a delegate to the Asefat ha-Nivharim, saw in her achievement the answer to the two issues that were the most important in her life: Zionism and the woman’s problem.

After the women’s “battle” was won Azaryahu devoted her time to aiding women with various legal problems. The Union established legal agencies for needy women. Azaryahu also served as a judge in the Jewish legal system (Beit Mishpat ha-Shalom ha-Ivri.)

Sara Azaryahu was obliged to retire from teaching in 1924 at the age of forty-one when her husband Yosef became the director of the Histadrut Teacher’s Union. Since the new position required him to be in Jerusalem, the family moved there from Haifa.

In 1945 Yosef died of a heart attack and in 1949 Sara went to live with her daughter Tehiya on Kibbutz Afikim. She died there in 1962.

In her life story Azaryahu barely mentions her husband or her four children, Ya’akov (1902–1987), Tehiyah (1907–1987), Gideon (1912–1914) and Arnan (b. 1917). She apparently adopted the so-called male conception of separation between the public and the private spheres. However, in her memoir she admits that the fight for equal rights is not only the women’s fight but rather a fight related to the quality of life in the new society in general.

Union for Equal Right - still image [media]
Full image

The Union of Hebrew Women for Equal Rights in Erez Israel was established in 1919 to campaign for women's suffrage in Palestine. Pictured here are the founders and leaders of the organization, which continued to battle for equal rights for women until the establishment of the State in 1948, when it merged with the WIZO organization. (L to R, seated): Hannah Berachyahu, Rosa Welt-Straus, Sarah Azaryahu, Hasya Sukenik-Feinsod, (standing):Masha Skivin, Nehel Golomb, Fania Metman-Cohen, Adah Twersky, Adah Geller.

Institution: Ha-Keren le-Ezrat ha-Isha, 1977

How to cite this page

Shilo, Margalit. "Sara Azaryahu." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 30, 2014) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/azaryahu-sara>.

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